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America’s Romance with the Future of Work

Today, the Shift Commission, a collaboration of Bloomberg and New America, released a report outlining possible scenarios for the future of work. The imagined futures outlined in the report are helpful in identifying opportunities and challenges, but it is up to us to determine the policies and practices that will best prepare the labor market for what’s to come.

First, it is important to remember that technology and automation are not new. From the assembly line to self-driving cars, robots have long replaced manual labor. Although disruptive in the short term, humans adapt, innovate, and evolve. When thinking about the the robots of the future, we know that it is much easier to imagine jobs disappearing than being created. But we often forget that technology is simply an extension of — not a replacement for — human capacity. So if we think about future technologies as opportunities to evolve and move into more creative jobs that require higher order thinking, automation becomes an asset rather than a threat.

The problem is that while some people believe the future is being created for them, others feel like the future is happening to them. Therefore, we must listen to how different people talk about the future of work and design a future that works for everyone.

Having participated in the Shift Commission’s Oakland scenario planning session, I found it useful to structure conversations about the future of work according to two conditions. Will there be (1) more work or less work, and is that work divided up into (2) jobs or tasks?

Ultimately, the commission imagined four different scenarios. But no one of these scenarios could possibly capture the full complexity of an increasingly complex global economy. More likely, the labor market of the future will be some combination of the following:

More Work, Mostly Jobs

In this scenario, it’s all about “mo money, mo problems.” This fictional future could become a reality if the economy continues to grow and that growth is generated mostly from large corporations like Walmart and McDonald’s, but also Google and Facebook. The increased supply of jobs would force companies to compete for workers by offering outstanding benefits packages, professional development opportunities, or workplace flexibility. While this future looks promising for the economy as a whole, corporate consolidation could possibly stifle innovation and leave workers less satisfied overall.

More Work, Mostly Tasks

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This is the “I got six jobs, I don’t get tired” scenario. In a future where there is plenty of work for everyone and it is broken up into discrete tasks, work becomes more flexible and more specialized. You could imagine this happening if large corporations get broken up by a series of startups and small businesses that find new ways to distribute work, much in the same way that Uber disrupted the taxi industry. Flexibility and specialization could improve individual happiness, but the decentralized nature of work could create deep cultural and societal divisions.

Less Work, Mostly Jobs

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This “9 to 5” scenario could also be called “back to the future,” because we’ve been here before. Think back to 1982 when unemployment rate in the United States shot up to 9.7 percent. If this were to happen again, corporations would hold all of the power and workers would be forced to compete for less work and lower wages, leaving fewer dollars in their pockets to spend on the goods and services they produce, causing severe economic stagnation.

Less Work, Mostly Tasks

Workers in this scenario have “99 problems and a job ain’t one.” Corporations would also struggle in this scenario as work becomes decentralized and organized via automated bots. Although tasks allow people more flexibility and control over their work schedule, scarcity of work overall will make workers vulnerable to unpredictable streams of income, lower wages, and a reduction in benefits across the board. That is, unless we are able to implement a robust social safety net that is portable, flexible, and universal.

It is fun to daydream about the future of work, but the problems surfaced by this conversation will have real and not-so-distant impacts on the well-being of the American people and the global economy.

In my view, the public sector has the most important role to play in creating a social safety net that meets the needs of our most vulnerable population, for reasons of history, infrastructure, and ubiquity. But solutions should not come from government alone. Businesses and startups should prioritize products that meet people’s most basic needs. And philanthropists and nonprofits need to get smarter about planning for the future, allocating resources, and measuring impact. As long as ideation about how to meet people’s needs is confined to the Beltway, solutions will inadequately address the real and pressing needs of people whose jobs are changing and becoming automated. That is why the work of the Shift Commission is so important.

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In order to prevent the economic and social upheavals predicted above, we must move past romanticized versions of the future, be realistic about the winners and losers, and use all of the tools in the proverbial toolshed to create a future in which purpose, prosperity, and economic security are attainable to all, not just friendly robots and the engineers who create them.

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